We speak to the Los Angeles artist about figuring out her identity, her upcoming album, and the difficult yet rewarding conversations that stemmed from her early releases.

LA-based singer-songwriter Maddie Zahm is the rising voice in pop you’ll want to listen to forever. Growing up in Boise, Idaho, she worked as a worship leader from the age of 13 years, learning the craft of singing through church music and choirs. After gaining her start on American Idol, working as a songwriter in country music, and eventually venturing into the pop sphere, she moved to LA and found her sound and voice alongside her identity. Quickly rising to virality on TikTok with her hit single “Fat Funny Friend”, her music quickly became anthems of empowerment: for people experiencing fat phobia, struggling with their sexuality, or generally trying to find their place in the world.

Her debut EP, 2022’s “You Might Not Like Her”, chronicled her journey of leaving behind the church, moving to LA, and coming out as queer. Now, more sure of her identity as ever, she is ready to share her second body of work — Now That I’ve Been Honest. A 12-song album that continues exploring her identity, it covers the messy yet beautiful transitional time period of growing into who you truly are. And, with her honest and compelling lyrics, she gives listeners the confidence to believe in who they are. Now That I’ve Been Honest begins with “Where Do All The Good Kids Go?”, a captivating single that has been released ahead of the album’s October 20 unveiling.

While in London opening up for P!nk’s BST concert in Hyde Park, Maddie Zahm talked to us about her journey thus far, the difficult yet rewarding conversations that stemmed from her EP, and what this new chapter looks like for her.

Watch “Where Do All The Good Kids Go?”…

Read the interview…

How did you originally get into singing? And what was the lead up to American Idol?
I always loved singing. I was very much raised on church music. That was how I got started, I was a worship leader probably by the time I was like, 13 or 14 years old. I always played the guitar, that was something that I picked up when I was young. I tried out for a couple shows, but to be honest, I mostly just wanted to skip school. Most of the time, my mom would be like, “We should go and audition for this,” and I’d be like, “Okay, why not?” And then American Idol. I was 19 and in school to be a special educator, and a bunch of people from the church that I was leading worship for told me to go and audition, and I was like, “Skip school? Absolutely.” So I ended up going and auditioning. It felt like an absolute joke, because I was not expecting to make it, and then they ended up calling me back. And I somehow just ended up in the top 50, it was crazy! I was not writing songs at the time, but I do remember, that’s how songwriting came to my attention. A lot of the people there were songwriters and would sing their own songs. And I remember being like, “Well, I think I can do that. I think that the way that they’re writing, that makes sense to me.” I remember — oh my god, this is so funny, I haven’t thought about this for so long — I remember hearing their songs and being like, “Writing music, specifically breakup songs, all you have to do is say something snarky in your head or something funny. And then you have to put a melody to it.” You have to think of something really clever and you put a melody to it. In my head, it made sense. It took me a year and a half to finally try after the show. I moved back home and went back to college. And then the pandemic was when I really started writing. I started writing these breakup songs, thought I was going to be a country writer, and then accidentally wrote the EP, and here we are.

When you say accidentally, what does that mean?
Basically, I had been writing for country artists. I had self released a couple of country songs and ended up getting signed to a publisher, who encouraged me to move to Nashville and become a country artist. But so I turned in my country EP and my very sweet publisher, Rachel, who I owe so much to, literally said to me, “This doesn’t sound like you.” I was like, “Oh, I don’t know what that means.” So we kind of shelved it. I went to LA for a week before I was supposed to move to Nashville, and I was convinced I was going to be a writer in the pop sphere. I ended up moving to LA, and while I started writing for pop singers, there would be sessions where people would cancel or not show up, and it would just be me and a producer. This time was also when a lot of my identity kind of came crashing down. Moving to a different place really allowed me to explore identities outside of the ones that I was given in the church. And so I started writing. That was about two years ago. I started writing songs like “You Might Not Like Her” and “If It’s Not God”, and I truly wasn’t intending to put them out, I was just processing the fact that, for example, I moved to a place and I kissed a girl. That’s how that chorus started, like, “someday you’ll kiss a girl and you’ll panic.” And I just started writing these deeply introspective songs that I really thought were only going to be for me. But then I showed it to Rachel and she was like, “Maddie, this is the artist that I knew you were going to be. You need to release these.” At the time, the amount of emotional work that I had to do in my personal life to get to a place where I was able to release those without it being completely jarring to everybody in my life was really wild. I hadn’t told my parents yet, they didn’t even know I wasn’t really going to church anymore. So it was a lot of prep work and personal work to be able to release those songs.

How does it feel to release such personal music?
I think what’s interesting about my music at the time was that I kept assuming, not just because of what I believed, but because of stuff that I was hearing, that songs like “Fat Funny Friend” and “You Might Not Like Her” were way too fucking personal for people to relate to. There were multiple meetings and people who advised me to take out a line of Fat Funny Friend so that everyone could relate to it. And I remember just being like, “No, if the songs are not what they are the moment that I wrote them, then I don’t want them.” Not everybody has thrown their purity ring out in the middle of an airport, but we’ve all had moments where there has been that shift of identity, of like, “I’m not going to do this anymore.” And the reaction of Fat Funny Friend doing so well and people loving and relating to it, even when they aren’t necessarily in the place of being plus-sized at that time, it was crazy to know that my experiences, even as specific and nitty gritty as I got with the songs, were so universal and so widely accepted. And that just gave me so much confidence in releasing “You Might Not Like Her”, because it made me realise that the closer that I am to my art and the scarier and more personal it is, the more likely it is that a lot of people have probably gone through it. It’s very similar to the way that people are like, “I’ve never had an original experience in my life.” I think sometimes we don’t realise that the deepest, darkest shit that we hide and don’t feel like people are going to understand is oftentimes the stuff that would connect us the most. But we’re so afraid to talk about it, because it feels like we’re putting ourselves on a platter. But oftentimes, that’s the shit that nobody talks about. And so that really just made me realise that the moment I abandon that specificity and personal quality is the moment that it’s no longer my project, you know?

You’ve really become a role model in a lot of ways to people. How does that feel and did you have any artists you looked up to growing up?
Weirdly, I feel like I didn’t, because I mainly listened to church music. But in some ways, I kind of feel like that’s helped me in my artistry, not having a lot to base my music off of, because it’s really hard for me to abandon my individuality when I don’t have a lot to take from, if that makes sense. I definitely have people that inspire me, but it’s mainly just me being brutally honest… in a way that probably is too much at times.

I would love to talk about “Step On Me” and what that means for this next chapter of work.
I think where I’m at, which is so exciting, is that I feel like we’ve set this foundation with the EP, and now we’re going into this next cycle with the album. “Step On Me” was the first thing outside of the EP that I released. Being raised in the church, we’re told to be meek, kind, patient, a good wife, studious, all of these things. And the EP was very much me allowing myself to be like, “That’s not me.” And this album is literally the past eight months or year of my life. I wanted to show that now that my identities from the EP are stripped — I’m no longer a worship leader, I lost weight, there’s a lot of identity shifts that have happened — now, I’m allowed to have a breakup and be pissed about it. Like, that’s not something that I was ever raised to be. We were supposed to be so forgiving, and that’s just not reality. I’m allowed to be angry. So this was the first time that I allowed myself to really lean into those emotions and be like, “I’m fucking pissed.” The album is called Now That I’ve Been Honest, and it’s in chronological order. It starts with “Where Do All The Good Kids Go?”, which is a transition from the EP to the album and sounds very much like the EP to ease people into the new sound. After “Where Do All The Good Kids Go?”, it starts with the first love song that I wrote about a girl, and then enters into talking about my depression and moving away and family stuff. And then it ends in a conclusion in the same way that the EP does. It’s fucking honest, but the songs are a different type of honest than the EP.

That progression from the EP to the album is really cool — do you think that’s something you’ll continue doing?
Starting with an intro that sounds more like the project from before and ending in an outro that leads me into the next project, is something I love. During the tour, I was watching all these people shuffling through and healing and figuring out those identities [of the EP] in real time. And it’s interesting seeing people relating to “If It’s Not God”, because I feel like that’s where I was a year ago. And then I released that song, and now I’ve been having all these other journeys, and I literally feel like I have to catch up with them. It’s almost like we’re old friends that haven’t talked in a minute. That’s how I want this album to be perceived — like I’m catching up with my friends on the things that I’ve been doing.

The album is very much me walking through what’s been going on the past year and coming up with a conclusion that I’m really excited about. I kept a lot of the day of vocals, because it’s important to me that people understand the chaos and the messiness of what my life was. It’s like a good kid entering the world without training wheels, and if I can help other people walk through that and allow them to accept the messiness and the mistakes, then… that’s what I want.

Have you had anybody reach out to you, either from your specific community growing up or elsewhere, about relating to your music and how meaningful it is?
Yeah, it’s crazy! So many people that I was raised in the church with either leaving it or queer or talking about the things that happened. Even people who struggled with body stuff who seemed so confident when I was growing up. People I never would have expected to go through the same things that I did. It’s just crazy, we always think we’re in it alone. It has really shown me that, if I could go back in time, there were a lot of other people that I could have leaned on. But we didn’t talk about those experiences. It’s wild, I have had the most constructive conversations with people recently about all of it. A lot of people that I was raised with were raised on the homophobic train, and a lot of times those people don’t have gay people in their lives. And I think I kind of reversed it, because they already loved me. They didn’t believe that they could love a gay person, but they loved me. That was really scary for a lot of people — that I was somebody that they already loved, and I’m also gay. I’ve seen a lot of growth and a lot of really difficult conversations come from that. And I empathise with them. They didn’t think that they could and now they do and they have to, because they love me and they don’t want to lose me, and vice versa. So I think it has stretched a lot of people in my life to not only accept it because they want to keep me around, but because they love me and they want me to be happy.

That’s amazing, but also must have been challenging for you to initiate those conversations and talk to people about that.
It’s rough, but I also think I’m the right person for it, because I was in that headspace literally four or five years ago. It has not been that long. I empathise and I don’t hate them, because that was me. All it took was queer people in my life believing in me as a person, enough to know that I love people more than I love being right. And if I’ve had a conversation with you, that means that I believe in you enough to grow out of what you believe right now. And the people that I don’t, I don’t bother. But those conversations, it’s an act of love in my mind and an act of belief. It’s the same as when people stuck around me when I had that headspace — they had to really fucking love me to have those conversations, and they had to believe that I could be stretched the way that I was, you know? I am honoured that they stuck around and had those conversations, and honestly that’s how it’s been received in the people that I’ve chosen to have those conversations with.